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Curation as Content
The mood board is on main.
Scroll through any small or mid-size brand Instagram account these days and you may notice something: the mood board is on main.
It’s not uncommon to see small, nimble brands pad their content calendar with vibey, inspirational photos that feel like their brand. These posts, which are found on the internet versus created by the brand themselves, are meant to transport you somewhere inside the brand’s world—whether that’s the Nissei Theater in Tokyo or some marble bathroom that’s been making the rounds on Pinterest. They are often paired with simple captions like “Where we’d rather be” or “Today’s mood”.
While this type of curation on Instagram has always been a thing, it feels like more and more brands are making it a core pillar of their social strategy. Four out of the last 20 posts from non-alcoholic apéritif company Ghia were mood board-style photos complete with their #feelslikeghia hashtag. I’ve seen similar style posts on accounts like Crown Affair, Parade, Sea, Vince, and more. I also used to dabble in this style of posting when I worked on Healthyish’s Instagram account from 2017 to 2020. There’s a reason it’s so popular: the mood board post is usually very shareable, it helps make the consumer feel like they are discovering something thanks to the brand, and it’s low lift (and cheap) for the brand to create.
But, similar to my recent post on the legality of trending sounds, it’s important to think about the level of risk you’re willing to accept in order to post photos and artwork that you as the brand do not have the rights to. It’s also important to not be a jerk. (I’d like to once again state that I am not a lawyer and this newsletter is not legal advice!)
I’ve noticed that there are two types of mood board posts that typically show up on main:
First up: reposted content from an artist or person on Instagram. With this type of post, it’s easy to trace back where and who the content came from since it was first posted on Instagram by the artist themselves. For example, @gabbois and @nicolemclaughlin are two artists that brands seem to always gravitate towards reposting. But if you are sharing this type of trackable content, you have to ask for permission. Remember when I said not to be a jerk? Crediting them in your caption isn’t enough and I’d always recommend DMing or commenting to get an explicit go ahead. Or, even better, commission artists to create content for your brand—we did this at CAVA and it was the best.
The next style of post is vintage imagery or artwork that originated and exists outside of Instagram. Think: Roger Tallon’s Helicoid Staircase that Ghia posted or the Presto Whip Building in Dearborn, Michigan that Cake Zine posted. While still not technically legal (since you as the brand don’t own the rights to the image or have explicit permission), it’s a lot less risky to post these sorts of archival images as long as you are crediting properly. That means sharing what the image is, who created it, and the year it was taken. I would probably never recommend a big brand do this, but I do think smaller brands can get away with it. Like always, it comes down to the level of risk you are willing to take on.
Ultimately, if your brand is asking for permission and crediting properly, curation as content can be a powerful style of post. (If you’re still confused on the legality of it all, this breakdown on copyright and social media from Hootsuite is great!) It’s an easy, low lift way to bring your audience a little deeper into your brand’s world. When I asked Cake Zine’s co-creator Aliza Abarbanel about why they post curated artwork and imagery she said, “When people flip for the Burning Man cupcake cars or quirky '70s-era cake decorating content we post on Instagram, it proves that cake culture is worth celebrating and exploring in a longer format like a magazine—and that we're the curators to do it.”
A Mini Interview with Cake Zine Co-Creator Aliza Abarbanel
Rachel Karten: First, can you tell us what Cake Zine is?
Aliza Abarbanel: Cake Zine is an independent print magazine/very burgeoning “media empire” using baking as a lens to explore history and culture. We launched last year with two contrasting issues, Sexy Cake and Wicked Cake, and are currently working on releasing our third issue, Humble Pie, this spring—alongside publishing original content on our newsletter, throwing unabashedly hedonistic events, and generally collaborating with people we admire.
RK: Why did you decide to make curation a core pillar of your social strategy?
AA: We spent a lot of time researching cake culture while developing the magazine (and still do!), and kept encountering images (ex: David Bowie throwing his birthday cake down a ski mountain) that we loved and suspected would perform well on Instagram. We see curated photos as a proof of concept that cake culture has existed for as long as cake itself—and that it’s vast, niche, weird, and fascinating. Sharing these photos demonstrates our taste as a publication, brings more eyes to our page, and also piques interest in viewing cake as a lens to explore culture more broadly.
RK: How do your “mood board” style photos perform?
AA: Very well! At first, curated photos always performed better than our own original content—largely because we targeted “famous” subjects like Miss Piggy or kitschy ’70s cakes that we knew were very shareable because they hit on trends we saw from other curated pages. Now that we’ve grown and our audience is familiar with our work, they perform about as well as our own original content (some better, some worse).
RK: How do you source these photos?
AA: We have a very active Instagram DM chat with myself, co-editor Tanya Bush, and our social media lead Dominque Evans where we’re always sharing images that we see on our feeds, explore page, and the internet more broadly. We're constantly discussing dessert culture with our collaborators across the magazine's many verticals, and then we'll look for relevant images that might be a good fit on Instagram too. It's all content. For example, I actually grew up with friends whose family made some of those cupcake art cars for Burning Man, so I knew exactly what to Google.
RK: Do you ever ask for permission to use them?
AA: We try to ask smaller creators for permission before sharing, but if something is part of the public domain or created by a larger brand (ex: the cake dresses from Moschino’s 2020 Fall/Winter collection), we will go ahead and share without requesting permission. We like to credit as many people as possible—so the photographer, but also the baker, etc. That said, we are a small indie print magazine, so please don’t sue us!
[Editor's note: As of August 2023, Cake Zine has changed their social policy to ask for permission before posting.]
RK: Anything else you'd like to share?. But yes, please follow us on IG too.
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